A week after my perilous journey across the Atlantic with my two small children, ages 4 and 15 months, I’m only finally starting to feel like myself again. Traveling with more than one tiny human being is not for the faint-hearted. I thought I could handle it. I mean, I know a thing or two about traveling with babies. I’ve done it. A lot. Hell, I even started a community about it when my firstborn was 18 months old.
We are 6,000 parents around the world who discuss on a daily basis the joys and the fears of traveling with our little ones. We share travel hacks, local secrets, and tips. But most importantly we support each other. Because support is something that we parents really need these days. Whether we are traveling or not.
The day after I had survived my journey, I shared my emotional story with my community and was stunned by the empathetic response I received from a few hundred of my traveling parent friends. It seemed my story had really resonated with my peers. There is clearly something wrong with the travel experience today. Traveling has become increasingly stressful, and, for parents in particular, it can be a total nightmare.
Why does it have to be this way? And why does the U.S. have to be perhaps the most un-family-friendly country at airports? It seems that in all other countries, traveling with kids is somehow easier. Expectant mothers and moms with small kids have access to priority lines no matter where they are, no questions asked. Small playgrounds or little play areas are more easily found, at least across Europe. These are just a few of the questions that I pondered after sharing my difficult journey.
When I finally arrived home, I felt like I’d been to battle and had just barely survived. While helping me re-pack my bags the night before our trans-Atlantic trip, my mother jokingly suggested that I consider wearing a bathing suit for traveling with my kids. Maybe I should have taken her more seriously.
I flew back alone with my two from Paris to Chicago with a stopover in Philadelphia. I know perfectly well that I should have never agreed to that layover, but it was that or we would not have gone at all. Budget is a factor, after all!
The eight-hour flight from Paris to Philadelphia alone would have been enough to exhaust me to no end. During the interminable flight, my 15 month-old daughter could not sit still. I spent the better part of the eight hours rummaging through the various bags I had stuffed into my carry-on searching for books, toys, food, anything to keep her busy. Although older, my nearly four-year-old son still very much needed me for things like finding the right cartoon, taking him to the bathroom, turning the sound down–you get the idea.
My baby ended up sleeping a total of one-and-a-half hours, chopped up into two segments of 45 minutes, the second time awakened by her brother. She screamed, shrieked…a lot to fall asleep. Then, when I thought we were nearing the end, my son had a screaming meltdown as we started our descent into Philadelphia because he refused to buckle his seat belt. I had to force it on him and raise my very broken voice (I was coming down with a cold) to get him to understand while making my daughter scream herself as she was sitting on my lap and highly uncomfortable with me trying to handle her brother. It took a solid twenty minutes before he calmed down.
When we landed, I was a wreck, but I still had to get myself through the Philadelphia airport, meaning through Customs, baggage claim, baggage drop-off (yes, on top of handling my two kids and my carry-ons, I had to pick up my luggage), go back through security while scrambling to make my connection. My fun was just about to begin.
When I arrived at Customs, I hurried over to the Global Entry line. Last summer, when I had returned to the U.S. via JFK, an officer there assured me that while my kids do not have Global Entry, I could still go through with them, no problem. In Philadelphia, that was apparently not the case. To the back of the line I was sent.
At this point, what little energy I had left in me was running desperately low. Tears started running down my face as I realized I might not make my connection. I started breathing very heavily to calm myself down. A few passengers from my flight recognized me and allowed me to jump the line. An employee moved me to a shorter line, but all employees and officers there told me with vacant careless stares that they had no control over whether or not I’d make my flight. I was literally in tears on my Customs photo they now make passengers take when entering the U.S.
At baggage claim, the passengers who had helped me jump the Customs line, also helped me get my luggage and car seat to the baggage drop-off. There is no way I could have done this alone with my carry-ons and my kids (and the stroller no less). We then went back through security, which meant getting my baby out of her stroller (and folding it) and unpacking a bunch of stuff, getting her back into the stroller (nightmare). I then ran to the gate with my baby in her stroller and my son running ahead of me.
When we got there, I paused in front of the bar by the gate and got two glasses of water, one for my son and one for me. My daughter had been sipping away at her milk for a while. People were staring at me. I must have looked like a stressed out mess. In that moment, I didn’t give a damn about what I looked like, nor what anyone thought of me. I had been in fight-or-flight mode (no pun intended) that whole time. My son, who had been a nightmare at the end of the Paris-Philadelphia flight, at this point, was visibly concerned for his mommy, and asked me why I was crying.
People really did look concerned. And so many helped me on this trip. I must not forget to mention the lovely gentleman who helped me on the first flight and loaned us his iPad which had a coloring app for a half hour, gave me loads of parenting advice, and checked up on me three times during the flight.
At the bar, while I was sipping on the cold water calming myself down, a father of two noticed us, and told me he would do whatever he could to help. Just when I asked him if he could watch over my stuff while I went next door to grab some food, my daughter’s passport went missing. I started to panic again, and the nice man told me to take deep breaths. And thankfully, it had just fallen under my massive backpack. But during those three minutes, I truly thought we wouldn’t be able to board our flight home.
But not everyone was nice. Just when I thought it was all over and while trying to figure out the self-pay machine while buying the food, a lady with huge sunglasses in her 60s came to me claiming to be a pediatric nurse and explaining to me that my baby girl looked like she was in great “distress” and that she was extremely concerned for her wellbeing. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Yes, my baby was crying, she was tired, it was an extraordinarily long day for a 15-month-old. I was going to take care of her. But I needed my two hands to pay for the food first.
Since, at this point, I was a shell of a person, I exploded into tears with no shame. The airport employees at that mini mart immediately asked me what they could do to help and if I was OK. Utterly vulnerable at this point and desperate, I broke down saying, “No, I am most certainly not OK!” The lady returned apparently even more appalled by my awful parenting skills and exclaimed that she was concerned for the wellbeing of my daughter and that she could now see why, that she was frankly outraged, and that someone should do something about me. The employees immediately defended me, telling her to back off, and with whatever was left inside of me I told her to just leave me alone, and she finally left.
I was a mess, but once again, I was met with some very touching acts of kindness. The manager of the mini market gave me a huge free goodie bag of cookies, muffins, bananas, and water. With the help of a few different people, I somehow made it onto the flight back to Chicago where my husband (thankfully) took over.
While I stared blankly into the distance on the flight home watching the sun set over Chicago, I wondered at this world we live in where Instagrammers in the travel and family space all share the perfect pictures of their babies around the world marvelling at how “easy” it all is. Of course, I support traveling with little ones, I started a community and website promoting it. I’m actually deeply passionate about exposing kids to the world at a young age.
But if there are two things that I learned from this trip it’s: (1) America particularly makes traveling with little ones an intensely stressful experience and someone has got to do something about it. And (2) we are not perfect, ok? Instagram and other social media networks have pressured us parents into sharing to the world how perfect we are at parenting. But, it’s just not true. We are human, after all. Let’s embrace being imperfect, please. We do the best we can, and that is all we can do. Shame on those who judge us for not being perfect parents.